(CNN) — The bars and eating places are full. People are out having fun with themselves. Spectacular geological points of interest are broad open to vacationers. Anyone visiting Iceland proper now could possibly be forgiven for considering they’ve arrived in a parallel universe the place the coronavirus never happened.
It’s a tantalizing prospect. For individuals arriving from nations nonetheless beneath lockdown, the sheer normality of consuming lunch in a bustling Reykjavik cafe is sort of as thrilling as peering over the thundering abyss of Iceland’s mighty Gullfoss waterfall.
There’s an added bonus for anybody who does make the journey right here at the second. Usually crowded with vacationers right now of 12 months, the nation is empty. Visitors will roughly have points of interest like Gullfoss or the explosive scorching springs of Geysir to themselves.
All to your self: Iceland’s now-empty Gullfoss waterfall.
This is not as a result of Iceland has been proof against Covid-19. In its early levels, the an infection wreaked havoc amongst the island’s comparatively small inhabitants. But because of a rigorous regime of monitoring and tracing, it has roughly been eradicated, giving the nation confidence to reopen borders on June 15.
Two days later, on June 17, Iceland celebrated its annual nationwide day with its common zeal, locals mingling in the fairly Nordic streets of the capital. There have been no face masks or social distancing as Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdóttir got here out to deal with the crowds.
Masks are worn at the airport, however not in the remainder of Iceland.
There’s no complacency although. Before getting into Iceland, vacationers should put on a masks on flights and inside the arrival halls of Keflavik Airport. On touchdown, they be part of a brand new queue for nostril and throat swabs to filter out anybody who may be carrying Covid-19.
This might be an unsettling expertise. It includes being ushered right into a cubicle the place two individuals wearing full medical protecting gear use lengthy plastic sticks to prod a lot deeper than you may count on to take a pattern.
From July 1, when Iceland opens as much as nations past the European Union’s Schengen Zone, guests should pay $114 for this course of.
Results come by textual content message a number of hours later. If constructive, guests should enter quarantine for 14 days no matter any plans they may have for his or her go to. There’s additionally the possibility of forgoing the take a look at and going straight to quarantine.
If the take a look at is damaging, guests are free to get pleasure from Iceland with no restrictions. As of this coming weekend, they may head straight from the airport to the steaming waters of the Blue Lagoon, just some miles down the highway.
Ultimately, Iceland’s screening and get in touch with tracing system has been so environment friendly that it might probably boast considered one of the lowest virus loss of life charges in the world: three per 100,000 individuals in comparison with 440 per 100,000 in the UK.
Iceland’s bars and eating places are crowded.
What makes that much more notable is that they began off with considered one of the highest an infection charges in Europe — 513 instances per 100,000 in comparison with 450 per 100,000 in the UK.
Kári Stefánsson, CEO of deCODE, the personal lab in Reykjavik that handles all of Iceland’s testing, tells CNN that a part of this success is all the way down to efforts to determine regional accents displayed by mutations of the virus arriving from totally different elements of the world.
“When a virus moves into a new region, it continues to mutate somewhat randomly,” Stefánsson says. “Since we have sequenced the virus from everyone in Iceland, we can first determine where the mutation came from and then we can follow it as it’s spreading in society.”
That knowledge is handed on to the well being authorities who use it to hint anybody who may need come into contact with the virus.
Back to work
Crowds hit the streets throughout Iceland’s nationwide day on June 17.
Kristin Yr Gunnarsdottir acquired to expertise this first-hand when she was referred to as up by the tracing group and instructed she had been served by a waiter with Covid-19 throughout a lunch she’d had six days earlier.
She had to enter isolation and shortly developed virus signs. Then she was examined constructive.
“It was a bit shocking because then I knew I had to be home for at least two weeks, but I ended up being at home for 23 days because you have to be at home without symptoms for seven days before they let you out.”
Stefánsson is baffled that different nations aren’t utilizing the identical system.
“We have been able to work on this in an informed manner rather than poking in the dark and I insist that what has happened in the United States, what has happened in Great Britain, is that, because of lack of screening or lack of an attempt to understand what is really going on, it has been really difficult to contain the infection.”
With the virus beneath management, the authorities is stepping up once more, to assist restart the financial system, significantly the hard-hit tourism sector. That’s why it is so eager to reopen its borders, regardless of the danger of arrivals bringing in recent an infection.
“I am obviously worried about a second wave, but in Iceland we are faced with very high unemployment rates right now,” Prime Minister Jakobsdóttir tells CNN. “We are not very used to high unemployment rates, so our guideline now in the government will be how to lower that number and to have more people working again.”
The newest official figures present the unemployment price in Iceland doubled from January to April to 7% and has presumably been climbing ever since.
Attractions reminiscent of the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa have been closed since March, which has misplaced it the income from 2,500-3,000 paying guests on common per day. While it’s set to reopen this weekend, numbers will probably be restricted to scale back the danger of spreading the virus.
Reconnecting with the world
A large open highway: Iceland is hoping extra vacationers will come.
Bookings have began coming again in for customer excursions too, providing hope to individuals like Scott Drummond, co-owner of Hidden Iceland, who says he needed to minimize his employees headcount from 15 to 6 throughout the disaster.
“We were able to hold on for a little while, but it was getting to that point where it wasn’t going to be that much longer that we could hold on for with no revenue,” he says.
Now that the border is reopening, issues are trying up. “Our website traffic surged 500% in a matter of days as soon as the announcement came.”
Tourism solely accounted for 8% of GDP in 2019 and economists warn that the border opening will not essentially assist the wider financial system.
“It’s devastating for the tourism industry for sure but as an overall effect, the balance of trade in Iceland has not been hit that severely and opening the borders will also cause currency to flow out of the country with Icelanders traveling abroad,” says Professor Tinna Ásgeirsdóttir of the University of Iceland.
“Icelanders, up until now during this Covid crisis, have been spending their money to a greater extent within Iceland, so there are a lot of things to consider.”
A bunch of Polish guests get pleasure from a waterfall close to Reykjavik.
Prime Minister Jakobsdottir additionally acknowledges the pent-up demand amongst Icelanders for reestablishing connections to the exterior world.
“It’s not just about the economy, it’s also about the fact that we are an island and in our modern times, just having a normal transport between countries is an essential factor and it’s very different when you’re an island or when you have borders lying with other countries all around. It’s a very different situation.”
Iceland now hopes to be an instance of how you can recuperate from a pandemic in addition to how you can deal with the virus itself.
It’ll be an equally difficult take a look at for the cohesiveness and resolve of this small island nation.